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The Place of the Novel in World History Courses: A "Summer Reading" Assignment based on Sophie's World: a Novel about the History of Philosophy

Jay Harmon


     Teachers of World History at all levels of instruction employ novels to lend depth and perspective to their course content. Teachers of Advanced Placement World History often use novels as summer reading assignments to jump start essential skills their students will need for the rest of the academic year. This essay attempts to provide a general overview and set of student questions regarding a novel which is typical in its strengths and limitations. These materials are useful for wide application, but are specifically designed to serve new Advanced Placement World History teachers who are considering incorporating this or any novel in their class.

The Novel

Sophie's World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy, by Jostein Gaarder (the current English edition published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2007 can be purchased on-line for less than five dollars) is an excellent vehicle for introducing students to the kind of creative thinking necessary for success in Advanced Placement World History. I have used this novel and accompanying questions in 9th, 10th and 12th grade history classes, and can report very positive-even enthusiastic-feedback from most students. It is widely available in paperback for fewer than ten dollars.

     Jostein Gaarder taught philosophy to high school students in Norway for many years and developed Sophie's World in an attempt to increase their interest in what they sometimes told him was a "dry" subject. Gaarder succeeded brilliantly in this effort. The book became an international sensation after its original release in 1991, and is now published in over forty languages.

     Gaarder uses a very clever method to "hook" his teenage readers into turning the pages and learning, sometimes without realizing it, the basic tenants of Western Philosophy. The novel's protagonist is Sophie Amundsen, a fourteen year-old girl in Norway. She finds in her mailbox two questions written on some paper: "Who are you?" and "Where does the world come from?" Those intriguing questions begin both the mystery (who wrote those questions and put them in her mailbox?) and the philosophy lessons found in the rest of the novel.

     Why is this novel particularly useful in an AP History class? The short answer is that it "pushes" students into considering points of views other than their own. Developing students' abilities to find "POV" in documents or in the narrative of their history textbook is an integral part of the AP program. As does the widely used Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the reader is drawn into considering the world from different perspectives. Bingo.

I particularly like using Sophie's World as a summer reading assignment for incoming APWH students, i.e., students (usually 9th graders) who signed up for APWH for the next school year. I give them a print version because frankly, I think that this format cuts down on "sharing" of answers via the internet. You may consider developing multiple versions of the questions, including using the same questions, but in a different sequence within each set of chapter questions, to discourage rote copying of answers.

     The questions I created and offered below run the gamut of Bloom's Taxonomy, as should any novel given students for analysis. Some are recall questions, while on the other end of the scale, others are designed to get the students to stop and reflect on their personal views of, well, the meaning of life. Feel free to add, alter or subtract questions to fit your students' needs.

     Sophie's World Is not above criticism. It has been argued that it is not suitable for AP World History because it's Euro-or Western-centric. This concern usually comes from fellow APWH teachers. Indeed, very little is mentioned about non-Western philosophers, and then only near the beginning of the book. Further, Sophie's philosophy lessons can, at times, become a bit wordy and dry. This feedback usually comes from students who want to get on with the mystery aspect of the novel and by-pass the philosophers. Students also sometimes balk at the length of the book—over 400 pages in many editions.

     However, I have found over the years I've used this book that these quite valid concerns do not detract from its overall value. Sophie's World is not a comprehensive World Philosophy course; but rather an engaging springboard that encourages young people to think in ways they had never…well, though of. As for its Western content, students in world history courses should have an opportunity to encounter Western as well as non-Western material that can rock their world. In any event, the use of only one novel rooted in any single tradition in a World History course seems short-sighted and, given the vast library of classroom-tested complimentary novels by non-Western writers, unnecessary.1

     I count some of the book's occasional didacticism and length as a plus for two reasons: First, it brings home the point that AP World History is a challenging college-level course; second, when they finish the book, students frequently tell me that they have a sense of real accomplishment; that they did indeed "stretch their brains" more than they expected. What more could a high school teacher ask? I close with a final note: I do not have an answer key to the questions. You will have to read the novel yourself and, I hope, find it as engaging as I have.

The Template

Your summer assignment is the world-wide best seller Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder. Bring both your questions and answers to the first day of classes. Impress me with your complete sentences.


1. Find out how much a Norwegian crown is worth, compared to the US dollar (this is outside research and not in the text).

2. Cite 3 elements (or examples) of a mystery novel in C. 1-6.

3. In ONE sentence each, summarize each chapter 1-6.

4. Who are YOU?


5. What is the origin of philosophy?

6. What was Sophie's mother's reaction to Sophie's questions/comments after she began receiving the packages?

7. What might philosophers and small children have in common?


8. After reading about the shift from a mythological to a natural view of philosophy, what class in school did Sophie especially want to forget?


9. What is the point of seeing what each philosopher's project is?

10. Define rationalism.

11. What does this mean: "we cannot step twice into the same river."?


12. Why is Lego the most ingenious toy in the world? Do you have any history with Lego?


13. Define fatalism.

14. What was the famous inscription at Delphi ("DEL-fee")?

15. Who were the best-know Greek historians?

16. Does anything about the Hippocratic Oath stand out to you?

17. Who are you…now?

18. When did Sophie ever REALLY learn something?
19. How did Socrates represent a new era in philosophy?
20. What must be in place in order for democracy to work?
21. Compare (how were they similar?) Jesus and Socrates.
22. What one thing did Socrates know? (This is one of my all-time favorite quotes)

23. List 5 terms in this chapter that are of Greek origin.

24. What were the problems Plato was concerned with?
25. How did he differ from Socrates?
26. How did Plato differ from Aristotle? (You'll have to look ahead to Aristotle's
27. Plato believed all natural phenomena are

The Major's Cabin
28. What happened when Sophie looked into the mirror?


29. What did Aristotle say were the three forms of happiness?
30. What is on your list of 3 forms of happiness?


31. Define Hellenism.
32. Interpret this statement: "Rome conquered Greece, but Greece captured
33. Compare and contrast the views of the Cynics, the Stoics and the
Epicureans. Which view do you favor most? Why?
34. Contrast western and eastern mysticism.

Two Cultures
35. How did Paul show the Greek and Roman world a new approach to religion?
36. "Goethe" is pronounced "GER-ta" (hard "G" sound). Anyway, what is the
only way to become a human being-according to Alberto Knox?

The Middle Ages
37. How was the church Sophie entered symbolic of the spirit of the Middle
38. How did the Greco-Roman culture divide, yet survive?
39. What did St. Thomas Aquinas synthesize? How?

The Renaissance
40. Discuss two ways Sophie & Hilde are like the Renaissance.
41. Above all else, the Renaissance resulted in___________________.
42. Who said, "Knowledge is power" and what is that statement's
significance to history?
43. What was positively the most important scientific discovery and why?
44. Newton explained and combined the theories and discoveries of what 3
earlier scientists?
45. How was Martin Luther's teachings similar in spirit with those of the
Renaissance philosophers?

The Baroque
46. List political and religious elements of the Baroque era.

47. What was Descartes most famous proclamation?
48. Using Descartes' reasoning as a platform, describe how we are and how
we are NOT biological robots.

49. Spinoza said our temporary emotions keep us from happiness, therefore
should see everything from the perspective of_______ for true contentment.

50. What was Locke's belief in the concept tabula rasa?
51. What is the concept "natural rights"?

52. Which Asian philosopher pre-dated many of Hume's beliefs & how?
53. One of the main concerns of philosophy is to warn people
54. If you don't know the definition already, look up "Utilitarianism" and
define it here.

55. According to Berkeley Where do we exist? : "only in __________"
56. In what ways is this chapter the turning point of this book?

57. In what ways is THIS chapter the turning point of this book?
58 .Cite 2 examples of Hilde's how life is reflected in Sophie's. (Or is that the other way around?)

The Enlightenment
59. What was one of Hilde's "enlightenments" regarding Sophie?
60. What is the significance of the change in font beginning in the last
chapter and continuing here?
61. Most of the Enlightenment philosophers had an unshakable faith in:
62. To what historical event does the phrase "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" refer?

63. According to Kant, do space and time exist beyond ourselves? Explain.
64. Speculate: Why is Kant Mr. Harmon's favorite philosopher in this book?

65. How does Sophie receive hints in this chapter that she is not real?

66. Describe features of literature and philosophy that reflect
67. How could the Romantics be compared to the hippies of the 1960's?
68. What is a "bagatelle" in context of this book?
69. What clever "major" revelations are made toward the end of this

70. To Hegel, history was like a _________________.
71. Where else in these questions have you seen a similar idea to question #70?
72. Who is "God" to Sophie and Alberto?
73. Who is "God" to Major Knag?

And now for some light reading, or...

74. Compare (similarities) Kant and Kierkegaard in regard to the
importance of faith.
75. In what ways was Kierkegaard , take-no-prisoners type Christian?
Like Tabasco, a little Kierkegaard goes a very long way, so we move on to:

76. How did Marx's words about the purpose of philosophy change history?
77. According to Marx, what 3 elements were the basis of society?
78. "The history of...societies is the history of ________________"
79. Marx was wrong. Agree with this statement, using examples.
80. Marx was right. Agree with this statement, using examples.


81. How did Thomas Malthus' beliefs (what were they?) influence Darwin?
82. What are the religious/moral implications of the belief that humans are merely the result of random chance and natural selection over time?

83. Explain the meaning of the term "Freudian slip".
84. How did Freud's teachings/beliefs influence the arts?

Our Own Time
85. "God is dead", said Nietzsche (frē'drĭkh vĭl'hĕlm nē'chə or NEE-chey, more or less). Contrast western philosophy before and after the mid 1800's, argue that he is right, in that context.
86. Look up an encyclopedia biography of Simone de Beauvoir. What importance did she play in the modern feminist movement?
87. Cite one example from anywhere in the book of philosophy influencing the beliefs of society, and another example of the beliefs of society influencing philosophy.

The Garden Party
88. What in the world is the point of this chapter!? Well, I'll tell you: without any
structure or order in the universe (and society, for that matter) everything begins to fall apart. Also--In the 20th c., philosophers (and society, for that matter) questioned the validity of the "old order"—Don't answer these: Did that lead to the chaos and destruction of the 2 world wars? Or did the chaos and destruction of the 20th century come from the "old order" itself? Nobody knows for sure. So your guess is as good as any philosopher's.

89. Cite an example from this chapter when Hilde turns the table on her father, by doing to him what the major had done to Alberto and Sophie.

The Big Bang
90. What was your favorite chapter in this book? Why?
91. Who was your favorite philosopher in this book? Why?
92. Did you like this book? Why or why not?
93. For the last time, who are you? Has your answer changed since I
asked at the beginning of these questions? Why…or why not?

Jay Harmon teaches Advanced Placement World and European History at The Woodlands Christian Academy, The Woodlands, Texas. He is a former member of the AP World History Test Development Committee and a leader at the APWH exam reading since its inception in 2002. His website, is designed to assist new AP World and AP European History teachers. He can be contacted at



1 Guides for the classroom use of novels by many leading writers can be found in previous issues of World History Connected. See, for example, "The Graphic Novel in World History" 4, no. 2; 'The World in Miniature" 2, no.1; "Reading Africa 2, no.1, all searchable at



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